Looking Back on 50 Years of Making Beautiful Books

Looking Back on 50 Years of Making Beautiful Books

Godine, who speaks quickly, with traces of a Boston accent, can get carried away when the subject is books, and talks about printers the way other people talk about movie stars. He also loves to mention typefaces — Bembo, Baskerville, Garamond, Caslon and Janson come up a lot — and the names of beautiful papers: Amalfi, Fabriano, Nideggen.

“It’s an obsession,” he said, and explained that it began back when he was in college, at Dartmouth in the ’60s, and took a course with a professor named Ray Nash, who taught graphic arts and the history of printing. That was also when he fell in love with letterpress — the old-fashioned art of pressing paper so firmly down on inked metal type that the letters leave little dents.

Godine began his career, in fact, as a printer, not a publisher. After college he apprenticed with the sculptor and engraver Leonard Baskin, who also ran a print shop in Northampton, Mass. In 1970, together with two partners, Godine opened a shop of his own in an abandoned cow barn in Brookline. The company did letterpress, setting its own type by hand and printing wedding invitations, birth announcements, the diplomas for Harvard and Wellesley.

Gradually, his company branched out into pamphlets and broadsides — reprints of Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden,” for example, and Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” — and from there into books. To judge from the descriptions in “Godine at Fifty,” some of these early efforts verged on the foppish — fine printing for the sake of fine printing. There was an edition of Thomas Boreman’s “Moral Reflections on the Short Life of the Ephemeron,” for example, that featured meticulous, hand-tinted etchings of mayflies.

“I suppose you could say some of those books were ‘privished,’ rather than ‘published,’” Godine said, laughing. “But it was never my intention just to be a fancy printer or a hobbyist. I thought we should be a business. Not that I knew the first thing about business.” He shook his head and told a story that’s also in “Godine at Fifty”: At one point, Godine’s father, learning that his son’s company had never filed a tax return, sent his own accountant over to check on things. The accountant asked if he could look at the books, and Godine said of course, pointing to the printed ones on the shelves. All he had by way of financial records were a couple of checkbooks that hadn’t been balanced in years.

In those days, Godine had a trust fund that he could draw on in emergencies — until it ran out. And his timing was fortunate. “This was right after Sputnik,” he explained, “and for some reason the government thought the way to pull us even with the Russians was to give the libraries a lot of money. So we could publish anything, even the worst poetry in the world, and still sell 500 copies.”

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